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Imagination time: you’re a dog. Cute puppy, shaggy old sheepdog, or grumpy pitbull--it doesn’t matter. The point is, you have a thick coat of fur covering your body. Unless you chose to imagine you were one of those hairless dogs. Why did you choose that? Pick again, something with fur this time. Ok, so: you’ve got your fur. It keeps you warm all winter, looks shiny and clean, and all the other dogs are jealous. Then, one day, your beloved fur starts to feel weird. It won’t stop itching, no matter how obsessively you scratch. It feels like there’s something moving underneath it. Sometimes you feel sudden, irritating pinches of pain. Your coat starts to look less shiny and dirty, gross-looking black spots start showing up on your back. The dogs that used to envy you are making fun of you! Alright, don’t panic, it’s over now: you’re human again! All good? Ok. That didn’t sound like a sweet deal, did it? That dog had fleas. Not only are fleas, ticks, and the other pests that hitch a ride on pets unsanitary and nasty, they’re also frustrating and even painful for your little buddy! Fleas and ticks can be a big, pervasive problem for pets, but luckily there’s plenty you can do to treat them and even prevent them from becoming a recurring issue for your furry friend. Here’s everything you need to know about fleas to make sure they’re never going to bother you or your four-legged companion again.

dog thinking about bugs

Where Fleas Come From

Fleas and ticks have had to survive in a world where pretty much everyone hates them for a long, long time, so they’ve gotten ridiculously good at figuring out ways to get what they need. And what they need is that luscious doggy fur to hide out in. The important thing to know about the kinds of fleas and ticks that take up residence on pets is that they’re hitchhikers. They spread primarily from animal to animal, like they’re hailing furry taxi cabs or something. That means animals that naturally come into your yard like squirrels, raccoons, mice, and even other people’s pets will bring fleas and ticks along with them. Think of it as pest lice: Somebody’s poodle brings their fleas to doggy daycare, and then by the end of the day, everyone has fleas and the school nurse is telling your dog to shower more often and use special shampoo. Even if Fido doesn’t have direct contact with squirrels, raccoons, or any other dumpster divers, wild animals like them will hang out around your backyard and often leave behind their fleas when they go. Then, the next time Fido needs to take a bathroom break, those fleas will swing on back with him. Your dog is probably most at-risk when you’re walking them, especially if you walk them in a park or another place with shrubbery, brush, or heavy foliage. Fleas use shrubs, trees, bushes, and pretty much any other flora as vantage points from which they can spot and jump onto your pet as you walk by. That bush Fido always pees on is basically a flea bus station. There’s one more common way your pet gets fleas, and you’ll have to bear with us because it gets pretty gross. The problem could be you. Sorry, we know it hurts, but it’s true! Fleas, ticks, and other hitchhiking buggers love to cling to clothing, shoes, socks, bags, and backpacks. When they see your stuff, it looks to them like an express-paid ticket to pest paradise. Once the pests have hitched their way into your house on your literal coattails, they’ll make a beeline (or in this case, a flealine!) straight for poor Fido and dig in. Don’t feel too bad about it--the whole reason pests are still a thing is because they’ve gotten really good at hiding from humans. If they weren’t, Plunkett’s would’ve chased all those suckers down by now!   

fleas under dog fur

How To Tell If Your Pet Has Fleas

When you suspect your pet has a pest infestation, act right away. Lure them over to you with the promise of food and then grab ‘em! Once you’ve got Fido pinned, do a thorough inspection of his fur. Part the fur with your hands or a flea comb to see down to his skin. As the fur parts, you may be able to see very small dark brown fleas scrambling to seek shelter. After a first pass, use a flea comb and go back over your pet’s coat again. If you pick up or see any small brown creepers that move very quickly or see a lot of blackish or bloody spots or specks, your pet probably has fleas. Check especially carefully around the base of your pet’s ears and in the area around their hind quarters. These are the hottest clubs for pests to hang out in. If you found a lot of brown specks that resemble dirt, put some of them on tissue paper. If a small red dot appears on the paper after a couple minutes, that means the specks are flea feces. You can also give your pet a bath, if you can manage to keep them still for that long. Keep the drain clogged and look at the water when you’re done. If there are a lot of black specks floating in the water, it’s bad news. Finally, if you manage to catch something red-handed, squish it between your thumb and forefinger. Sorry, bugger, it’s for science. If it squishes easily, it’s probably not a flea. If it’s hard to kill that sucker or if you can’t do it at all, you’ve got fleas!

dog being examined for fleas

How To Treat Fleas

To effectively treat your pet’s pest infestation, you have to do a couple things: first, you’ll have to kill the adult fleas that are already on poor Fido. Consult with your vet to find a good flea shampoo that will be effective and won’t irritate Fido’s skin. Read the directions on your specific shampoo carefully, because they don’t all work the same way. Cover your pet’s hair with the shampoo completely; the better coverage you can get, the more effective the bath will be. Work the shampoo to a lather and then leave it on your pet for about 5 to 10 minutes. Then rinse it off thoroughly. After the bath, go back over Fido’s coat with a flea comb and remove any fleas or flea feces you find. Kill the fleas you remove right away. Next, you need to find and remove any possible source of future infestation. That means tracking down pupae, larvae, eggs, and cocoons. A single flea cocoon could release more than 1,000 flea eggs, which would mean you’d be back at square one, so be sure to clean thoroughly. Launder all your pet’s toys and bedding, and vacuum or mop the areas where they sleep, eat, and play. It might be a good idea to throw out your dog’s bed entirely; dog beds are a great place for flea cocoons to grow. When you vacuum (you should vacuum a lot during and after a pest infestation), put a pest collar inside your vacuum cleaner. That will ensure that pests you suck up into the vacuum die right away, instead of living in your vacuum and starting a little colony in there. The last thing you have to do to treat a flea infestation might be the most important: treat all the animals in your house. If one pet has fleas, they probably either all have fleas or will soon. Sure, it’s not fair. You can already hear the complaints coming from your dainty indoor house cat. “But I’m not the problem! I never even go out! Why am I being punished for something Fido did!?” You’ll just have to tell them what your mom told you when she made you eat Brussel sprouts every night for 18 years: “It’s for your own good.”

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